Marking the United Nations’ International Human Rights Day on 10  December,  representatives of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Human Rights Watch Germany (HRW) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) convened in Berlin on 8 December during a discussion event entitled “Attacks on Civil Society” in Bahrain.

Among the panel speakers were Said Yousif Al-Muhafdah, Vice-President of BCHR, Wolfgang Büttner, press officer and associate advocate at Human Rights Watch Germany and Jean-Marie Rogue, EU liaison officer at FIDH.

Al-Muhafdah welcomed the panel and opened the discussion listing facts and figures related to attacks on civil society in Bahrain. From January to November 2016, BCHR documented 1153 arrests, and 1065 prison sentences totalling 9726 years handed down in politicized cases. At least 300 individuals have seen their citizenship revoked and to this day, there are about 18 Internet users detained for charges related to online freedom of expression, including BCHR’s President, human rights defender Nabeel Rajab. In addition to discussing Rajab’s case, in which he faces up to 15 years’ imprisonment on charges related to tweets and retweets, Al-Muhafdha discussed additional cases of retaliations against BCHR’s staff based in Bahrain. He highlighted the travel bans imposed on no less than five members of the BCHR team in the last six months, bans which were issued right before the 32nd and 33rd UN Human Rights Council sessions.

Al-Muhafdah made a call for civil society to stand up and join efforts to demand respect for human rights, and urged the German Foreign Ministry to call on the Bahraini government to:

  • Comply with its human rights obligations;
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience and;
  • Guarantee fundamental rights of free expression, assembly, religion, and association without any reprisal.

Speaking on HRW’s behalf, Wolfgang Büttner emphasised the importance of International Human Rights Day on 10 December, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and commented on growing concerns related to countries breaking rather than upholding human rights. As Büttner remarked, “The tendency at the moment is that this gap in human rights standards - the legal standards and the practical implementations - is getting wider and wider. And Bahrain is one of those countries where the deterioration of human rights standards is evident.”

About the current situation in Bahrain, he stated that it might look calmer to international observers on the surface since there are fewer protests, yet this is not because the political situation has improved rather because the crackdown has gotten worse. The situation deteriorated beneath the surface instead. According to Büttner, the government perceives unrest mostly as a security problem and responds to it with repression, which in turn leads to violence and radicalization. Büttner narrowed down these developments to two possible outcomes, saying these harsh measures taken by the government to grasp control of freedom of speech and of expression could very well incite instability or it could spell a political graveyard in Bahrain where every political dissident and human rights defender is silenced.

To assist in measures to prevent this, Büttner called onto the German Government to:

  • Take a leading position in condemning human rights violations;
  • Speak out publicly, also on the release of Nabeel Rajab;
  • Speak out against the death penalty and to push it onto the agenda;
  • Speak in favour of human rights defenders, in private meetings as well as public statements.

FIDH’s representative Jean-Marie Rogue, working at the intersection of human rights and the EU, focused his presentation on the European Union’s approach towards human rights in Bahrain. His general view was that actions are being undertaken but they are too sporadic and vague. Instead more recommendations have to be sent to the EU by the parliament and the language used has to become more precise by actively taking a stance and condemning individual cases more insistently. To exemplify this argument, he discussed governmental reactions to Nabeel Rajab’s case where the EU never asked for his immediate and unconditional release, but rather, individual Members of the European Parliament made strong calls for his release. However joint action is needed as well as more direct, insistent, condemnatory phrasing. According to Rogue, the EU is acting a bit too cautiously in its communication with Bahrain, therefore not sufficiently using its leverage.

Rogue challenged the status quo of the EU in approaching human rights violations in Bahrain. The strategy of having a dialogue and “keeping doors open” has to be complemented by the following recommended actions at EU level:

  • Impose a human rights discussion in the yearly meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in individual sectoral meetings with the Gulf region;
  • Implement human rights guidelines much more proactively;
  • Establish a common position by all 28 member states on human rights defenders in the Gulf region;
  • Control export of crowd control equipment and more general weapons and technologies that are used to violate human rights in Bahrain; and
  • Collaborate with civil society by naming and shaming states that are exporting arms and more specifically crowd control equipment and spying equipment to repress society and human rights defenders.